You can read ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ here: http://www.naic.edu/~gibson/poems/auden1.html
‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ is (like ‘If I Could Tell You’) a poem about the fate of love (and indeed life) in the face of Time. It was originally intended by Auden to be set to music – which explains the regular rhythm – and its style is that of a literary ballad. Elements of the dramatic are evident in the dialogue, for example.
It begins with a first person account of an evening walk, but even in the first stanza Auden begins foreshadowing events later in the poem. The phrase ‘The crowds upon the pavement / Were fields of harvest wheat’ serves two purposes. The first is that it hints at human mortality. Comparing the crowd to a harvest conjures images of reaping, and this fits well with our idea of ‘Death’ as a character, often portrayed as carrying a scythe. There is also the suggestion that people are no more important than ‘harvest wheat’, and their death is of no more consequence, although Auden does not clarify the metaphor any further. The second purpose of these lines is that they strike a balance between the urban ‘pavement’ and the rural ‘fields’, and indeed this is a poem of balance. Optimism and pessimism. Life and death. Auden begins the contradictions subtly, building up to the stream of paradoxes in the second half of the poem and the ultimate irresolvable conflict between love and Time.
The second stanza introduces the ‘lover’ – a stranger to the narrator and a vessel for all the positivity in the poem. It is perhaps significant that the narrator cannot provide this positivity himself. The emphatic opening line of the song ‘Love has no ending’ is in itself something the reader might want to believe, but it becomes more difficult to take seriously as the song continues and the lover’s claims get more outrageous; ‘I’ll love you / Till China and Africa meet, /And the river jumps over the mountain / And the salmon sing in the street’, ‘till the ocean / Is folded and hung up to dry / And the seven stars go squawking / Like Geese about the sky’. The hyperbole throws into doubt the enduring nature of love, and considering what follows we might see the lover as naïve. The heightened language here is balanced by the harsh realism to come, and eventually mirrored in Auden’s fantastical ‘land of the dead’.
With the end of the lovers’ song comes the end of the poem’s optimistic half, and the original statement about enduring Time is challenged by ‘all the clocks in the city’ chiming out the reminder ‘You cannot conquer Time’. This is the antithesis of the lover’s optimism and what follows is a list of cases where Time has the upper hand. Auden begins by describing the ‘burrows of the Nightmare / Where Justice naked is’ – this image is particularly unsettling because we like to imagine Justice personified as a composed and upright woman, but to imagine her as ‘naked’ almost connotes violation and certainly vulnerability. While this happens, Time ominously ‘watches from the shadow / And coughs when you would kiss’. These lines are a reminder of mortality – and the inevitability of wastage and illness. As is the case in ‘If I Could Tell You’, Time is portrayed as a superior onlooker.
The sinister passage of Time continues as ‘Vaguely life leaks away’ and ‘threaded dances’ and ‘brilliant bow[s]’ are broken. Every line is rife with pessimism and Auden’s wording brilliantly connotes the misery of aging. We then reach an interesting stanza where the clocks chiming becomes an instruction; ‘plunge your hands in water, / Plunge them in up to the wrist’. This has been the topic of much debate, but could be a reference to suicide. It would not be surprising, considering the tone of the poem thus far and the fact that suicide is the only sure way to avoid the slow and painful degradation that has been described (Auden himself considered suicide as a ‘right of choice’ for anyone who, certain of defeat, ‘wished to end their game with life’. If it is indeed suicide that is being discussed, then to ‘wonder what you’ve missed’ would likely be a person, in their dying moments, wondering what life would have held for them had they decided to continue. Alternatively, this stanza could simply be capturing a mundane moment where a person washes their hands and is suddenly overcome with a feeling of insignificance, and ‘wonder[s]’ about the many things that they will not have Time for in their short life.
The following stanza contains natural scenes on a gigantic scale and simple domestic images juxtaposed with them – ‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard’, for example. This bizarre idea is only an introduction to what is to come. The surreal and disturbing lines ‘The crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead’ are themselves a lane that the reader follows into ‘the land of the dead’ that is described in the following three stanzas.
Auden’s underworld is full of unsettling and uncomfortable paradoxes, ‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes’ and children’s stores are twisted so that ‘the Giant is enchanting to Jack’ (suggesting sexual appeal) and ‘Jill goes down on her back’, which again seems sexual and suggests promiscuity. Amid these dark and disturbing images comes another reminder that ‘Life remains a blessing’ that we are powerless to ‘bless’ ourselves with. In other words, life and death are beyond our control and the ‘land of the dead’ is our final destination, no matter how ‘distress[ing]’ we might find this. Again the chiming instructs us ‘You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart’. This is a paradox because we would think a ‘crooked neighbour’ could not be loved while a ‘crooked heart’ cannot harbour love. It could be that Auden is suggesting that only a ‘crooked heart’ could love a ‘crooked neighbour’, and this seems to expose a lack of faith in humanity. The frustration and confusion of this idea might be the cause of the tears that ‘scald and start’ and which are anticipated by the chimes.
The final stanza finally moves back to the narrator’s voice rather than the chiming of the clocks. We are told that it is now ‘late, late in the evening’ and that ‘the lovers … were gone’. This implies that a significant amount of Time has passed since the start of the poem, and we can easily imagine the narrator standing on the riverbank, absorbed in these thoughts about life and death even after ‘the clocks had ceased their chiming’, in much the same way that this poem stays with the reader. The last line is incredibly poignant, as the narrator notes ‘The deep river ran on’, despite the lack of chiming clocks. Time continues whether or not we count it. The river imagery is a common way to express the passage of Time simply because it is inevitable and by describing it as ‘deep’ Auden reminds us for a final time that it is ultimately incomprehensible.
It is down to the reader to decide whether it is more disturbing to contemplate the same issues that the narrator does, or to understand that the dark response of the clocks is the narrator’s own interpretation of the otherwise innocent sound. In either case, this poem is an evocative examination of a basic human fear, brilliantly structured for maximum emotional impact.
· Charles Osbourne, WH Auden The Life of a Poet, Michael O’Mara Books Limited, 1980